Tuesday, May 15, 2012

crime, comfort and tropes

One of my favourite comfort read genres is crime, particularly murder mysteries. Sometimes I feel strange about that- why are books about murder and horrible crimes comforting? It's a strange balance, and it's the reason I tend to shy away from true crime and towards the milder end of the crime spectrum. I think I really enjoy crime because it's so plot driven. When reading is hard or my brain is foggy what I usually want is something fast paced and absorbing that I won't be able to put down until I reach the end. It's a puzzle that I want to solve, or have solved for me in most cases.

There are some other things that make crime novels a good read, and a good comfort read. Firstly, crime fiction always comes to a resolution, the mystery is solved, the bad guys found out and usually punished. I was just reading an interview with Tana French where she says "mystery... is a genre very much based on morality" and I think that's true. Sometimes that plays out in straightforward ways, sometimes it gets twistier (particularly in noir or similar types of novels), but really in most crime novels morality is explored to some extent, and the concept of justice. Even in cosy mysteries. Secondly, a lot of crime novels are part of a long running series, which means they have a level of familiarity and you know what to expect from them. Each series will have its own tropes, and they fit into the larger picture of 'crime tropes' or 'literary tropes' or 'specific subgenre tropes'. I thought it might be fun to look at a couple of series that I have been reading recently and look at what makes them distinctive/what tropes they use. I might have to split it over several posts though...

Dublin Murder Squad - Tana French
This isn't so much of a comfort read for me because it's not as cozy as many of the books I like to read, the morality tends to be twistier and the crimes grittier. But I just finished reading Faithful Place (book 3 of the series) and I thought it would be interesting to talk about, so here you go.

I'm not sure if The Dublin Murder Squad is the official or unofficial title for this series, it's interesting because it's fitting in some ways (the books are largely set in and around Dublin, there's always a murder, the mystery is solved by a different member of the Dublin police each time) and not in others (it sounds almost cheery, and not all the detectives who star in these books are from the murder squad). Following a different main character each time means each of the (three so far) books in the series is quite different, but there are definitely some key themes/tropes that make this a clearly identifiable series. Some spoilers (especially for In the Woods) may follow.

Recently I read this review for Faithful Place at Raging Biblioholism and one word they used made a lot of the tropes click into place for me- Gothic. This series uses a whole lot of Gothic tropes, as well as the thriller/crime genre, to create its distinctive feel. First, and perhaps most striking, is the use of the uncanny. There are hints of strange, and perhaps supernatural, things happening, that never really get examined head on. This is really frustrating in In the Woods, where the intriguing mystery of what happened to Rob as a child that left him alone in the woods with a shoe full of blood and his fingernails embedded into a tree, is never fully revealed. The idea of a doppelganger is part of the setup for The Likeness, but it's a question that's not answered, and that the book isn't interested in answering. While there may be hints of the supernatural, there is nothing that is actually definitely shown as such. I'm not sure whether this is more effective or infuriating, but I do think it's part of the effect. Interestingly the uncanny element seems to be missing from Faithful Place (as does the concept of a surprising twist), although there are several other Gothic tropes lurking there.

Secondly, the past and the idea of a past coming back to haunt people, is pretty key in this series. Basically the main characters are the focus here, rather than the crime at hand, and the crime they are investigating is always specially designed to push all their buttons and dredge up memories. The mystery element, really, is whether they will crack under the pressure. So the crimes are usually personal, the characters are too personally involved to really legitimately be involved in the case. 

This past involvement trope is often used in crime, particularly in TV, to up the stakes in a series (like someone the detective loves being threatened)- a kind of 'this time it's personal'. I think it's used a little differently here, not least because it's part of the premise of the whole series. It's a definite device for character change. But the past is not just personal, it's broader than that. In the Woods invoked a broadly ancient, almost mythic, past, while The Likeness riffed off class and town/country tensions in the 19th century and Faithful Place looked at urban poverty of the 20th century. The broader past is not exactly the focus, it's just clear that it has contributed to the tensions, dangers and general shape of the present and its murders. The effect of all this is that the past is a looming presence in the stories, it almost feels that Ireland itself is a malevolent character, that holds grudges and doesn't forget. If not Ireland, there is something working against the detectives, a dark and numinous force of time and place.  Together with the elements of the uncanny, I often feel when reading these books that there is a second villain lurking just out of sight beyond the pages.

In Faithful Place the personal past is represented not just by the main crime, a cold case, the killing of undercover detective Frank Mackey's childhood sweetheart, but also by his family. The nearest the book comes to the uncanny is in its portrayal of family resemblances, the things that are passed down and shared, the way that Frank and his siblings try to escape certain traits of their parents but are shaped by them. There is a scene between Frank and his brother Shay towards the end of the book that really spells that out. In other Gothic tropes, there is an almost haunted house that is significant. 

Read Dublin Murder Squad for:
Pyschological thrillers with a Gothic edge, with the protagonists driven to breaking point to see if they will crack. I need to pysch myself up to this but they are real page turners with an effective mood and often characters I care for (mostly Cassie). Less focused on the case than the main character.


  1. I love this series and while I hadn't made the connection with the Gothic I can certainly see where you're coming from. Do you know that there is a fourth book due later this year called 'Broken Harbour'?

    1. I hadn't really thought of them as Gothic, just uncanny, until I read that blog post, but I think it makes a lot of sense.

      I had heard of Broken Harbour! Apparently the main character will be Scorcher Kennedy. I'm looking forward to it, Tana French mentioned it in the interview I linked to and I think Scorcher will be an interesting character.